The changing face of recreational flying
Few people involved in aviation today can be unaware that we are involved in a period of change, and in some areas radical change. For all the industry’s attractions, many participants are feeling beleaguered by factors beyond their control, mainly to do with burgeoning bureaucracy and costs.
Recreational flying is far from immune to these effects. Long considered an autonomous and entirely worthy part of the overall aviation scene as well as an entry to the broader commercial side, despite its many benefits recreational flying is tending to be left behind in the modern rush to quantify everything in monetary terms.
“Recreational flying is in decline because the aero clubs are too focused on CPLs,” states Simon Lockie. “They’re encouraging young people to go flying only to go commercial and get a flying job.”
The Lockie family — Harvey and his three sons Bryn, Simon and Tim — have owned and operated since 2005 the private airfield at Parakai, near Helensville at the southern margin of Kaipara Harbour, north of Auckland. They call it West Auckland Airport to identify it with the region, not the nearby village, and the commercial flying aspect comprises two skydiving operations.
The single-runway (07/25) airfield is the second on rural Green Road, established 30 years ago and superseding the first site. The runway was sealed in 2009 to accommodate the turbine powered jump plane, currently a PAC 750XL in addition to two Cessna 182s, and measures 740m by 8m, plus a 120m all-weather grass extension at the eastern (river) end. All circuits are to the north, away from the village.
Bryn runs an aircraft engineering business in one of the hangars and Simon, as well as being airfield manager, operates FlyWest, a flying school with a single Tecnam P92. Although GA aircraft are more than welcome at Parakai, an emphasis on microlights and LSA types is understandable.
Simon Lockie has strong views on the interchangeability — or lack of it — of microlight and GA qualifications. “A PPL is unobtainable for most people these days,” he says.
“Time in microlights should count toward other aircraft, as in Australia. I don’t see any good reason we shouldn’t count all three-axis time.”
He considers microlight training standards to be better than a PPL’s, particularly when it comes to senior retired airline captains able to pass on some of their experience, and regards some PPL exams as containing irrelevant ephemera. “Part 149 is parallel to part 61, and we should train so that parts 61 and 149 are interchangeable. We need a procedure to go from microlight to PPL as they do in Australia.”
One unanticipated result of not being able to credit all microlight time towards GA qualification, he says, is the reluctance of aero club instructors, most of whom are using their positions to gain experience with an eye on that eventual airline job, to embrace the lower costs, often better handling characteristics and many other advantages of microlights. Many smaller — and some not so small — clubs are disappearing, but others have adopted advanced microlights and are surviving.
And not only aero clubs are struggling. All recreational flying is under threat, from not only costs but also the closure of airfields. And once an airfield is closed, resource management and other considerations make it impossible to establish another one in its place.
But in an apparent contradiction, one way to keep airfields open is to raise costs to their users, the aircraft operators.
That one is not going down well with recreational pilots who have grown up using aerodromes as public amenities and resent having to pay now for something they’ve taken for granted. And the Lockie family is attracting opprobrium for its part in this new trend.
“We’re not apologetic about what we’re doing,” says Simon, “but we are apologetic about how we’ve gone about it. We realise it’s bad PR. People see rising costs and look for scapegoats.”
With a family expertise in computer software they developed Greasr, a system used by an increasing number of airfield owners for collecting landing charges and billing an aircraft owner once a month, avoiding costly piecemeal administration. Greasr, a name with pleasant landing connotations lost on non-aviation types, was deemed to be not very professional and has been changed to Aimm (automated intelligent movements management).
“Airfields as public amenities are decreasing,” according to Simon. “Emergency services increasingly use rotary wings. They don’t need airfields, which are now purely for recreational flying, training and skydiving.
“Airfields are solely for the benefit of pilots, so the users need to bear the costs. In the past five years, for example, we’ve spent $80,000 to $100,000 in legal fees alone to maintain this airfield, some of it just getting permission to trim the trees on approach to 07.”
Simon admits the perception among aviators is that when an airfield goes to using Aimm the fees are encouraged to rise.
“That’s not so,” he insists. “The airfield operators make the decisions. We don’t suggest fees. We want to help airfields efficiently collect landing revenue. It’s quite shameful how badly honesty boxes work — Raglan, for example, has been getting about 15 percent payments — although pilots on the whole are very honest. Helicopter pilots are more reluctant to pay.”
Sixteen airfields in New Zealand are currently billing via Aimm, with more — plus a few in Australia — using the system for monitoring movements for statistics. The traditional monitoring method is radio, with some cameras now in operation, all able to be run from one central position.
“Most airfields are not aware of their actual movements,” says Simon, “but this allows them to conveniently collect revenue with less cost doing so. This way their facilities are improving because more of the money can go back into them and not be lost in high administration costs. More efficient collection has enabled some airfields to keep prices down.
“It’s a change in era. Landing charges are the most equitable way to share. If pilots want facilities for the long term they should be prepared to pay. We have too many airfields in New Zealand for the pilots using them. We need more recreational flying.”
Flying may not be the most expensive pastime — consider the costs involved in other mechanised sports or owning a horse — but it does suffer from the most bureaucracy at the top. Costs are continuously rising as part of evolution in recreational flying, but there is little the average pilot can do about it.
- Report by John King, photograph supplied.
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